Thursday, 6 October 2011

Deadheading by dusk

October, and while people who ought to know about these things argue over whether or not we were having an Indian Summer (we weren’t, apparently – just a late warm spell), there’s no denying we’ve all been given a late reprieve from autumnal maintenance tasks to enjoy being in our gardens a little longer. Even the supermarkets have been holding back on filling the shelves with Halloween paraphernalia in order to be able to cash in on an unseasonably late weekend of barbequing. It’s been great.

The temperatures having returned to something a little more recognisably Octoberish this week, I find myself engaged in my annual rage against the dying of the light, frantically deadheading everything I can in the vain hope that this will somehow manage to hold off the inevitable approach of winter gloom. Like pruning, deadheading provides a way in which we can influence how a plant grows by working with nature; in this case, a plant’s inbuilt desire to reproduce. Flowers appear, their finery intended not for us, but to attract pollinators (insects, or humming birds, for example – not seen many of these last in Kent), or formed to enable the wind to carry pollen from one flower to another, sometimes over great distances. Once pollinated, the plant sets seed to ensure its precious genetic legacy is maintained. A timely intervention from the gardener, snipping off a spent infloresence, has the effect of prolonging the flowering period as the plant concentrates its energy on creating sufficient seed to give rise to the next generation.

Once the seed is produced, plants tend to feel that their job is done, and either expire (in the case of annuals and biennials), or shut down, overwintering in a state of dormancy until spring (in the case of perennials). No more flowers; and when the asters and the dahlias, the Japanese anemones and the penstemons, and all the rest of the floral rearguard give up the ghost, it is probably time to retreat indoors, light the fire and settle down with a good book and a snifter of something medicinal for the winter.

As it is, I stand defiant among the late summer blooms, flanked by crinkling sunflower heads and the last of the cosmos, shaking my secateurs in impotent fury at the darkening sky.

A note: Apparently the phrase ‘Indian Summer’ has nothing to do with India, but is of transatlantic origin, and had something to do with Native Americans. I heard this on Radio 4’s Today programme, so it must be true.